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On horror

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

I love horror movies. Over the years, I’ve easily watched hundreds of them. 

Just lately, there are a few horror movies I’ve been thinking about a lot.

One of them is George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” from 1968, an undisputed classic of the genre. At the end of the film (spoiler alert for a 50 year old movie) our hero Ben has managed to survive the zombie onslaught. As morning dawns, he peers out the window of the farmhouse where he’s holed up … only to be shot to death by a trigger-happy posse that’s out rounding up the undead. 

And then, of course, there’s that classic Twilight Zone episode from 1960: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” In that episode, a shadow passes over Maple Street, USA and all the power goes out; not even the cars will start. A young boy tells everyone he read a story about an alien invasion that caused similar issues. The aliens, he says, didn’t want anyone to leave the neighborhood, and they were actually hiding out within the community pretending to be humans. The citizens of Maple Street inevitably turn on one another as a witch hunt ensues to determine which neighbor is actually a monster from beyond the stars. In a classic Twilight Zone twist ending, the aliens are actually on a nearby hilltop, casually manipulating Maple Street’s electricity and marveling at how quickly humans turn on one another the moment that a bit of uncertainty is introduced into their lives.

But there’s one other movie that I think about nearly every day: Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” from 2007, an adaptation of my favorite Stephen King novella.

If you’re not familiar, the premise of “The Mist” is that a thick white mist filled with horrible monsters descends on a small town. We follow a group of folks trapped in a grocery store as they struggle to grasp what’s happening to them. Before long, the survivors in the store find themselves divided as the most frightened citizens rally around Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot with a loud voice, a bunch of easy answers, and a mean streak a mile wide.

There is one scene in particular that I think of often. Early in the narrative, before anyone is completely certain just what is hiding in the mist, the exhaust pipe on the grocery store’s generator becomes stopped up from the outside. A couple of good ol’ boys who work at the store are about to send Norm the bag boy out onto the loading dock to clear the blockage. 

David, our protagonist, tells them that this is a horrible idea. There is mounting evidence that there are creatures in the mist, he tells them. In fact, he heard something enormous bumping around on the loading dock just a few minutes ago. He tells them that Norm could die.

The good ol’ boys dismiss David as a whiny, scared little college-boy. They know what they’re doing. They activate the roll-up door, Norm takes half a step outside, and then he’s immediately dragged off by giant tentacles attached to some massive, unseen monster. 

Once the roll-up door is closed, the good ol’ boys don’t apologize to David. They turn on him.

“You shoulda said what you meant!” they howl. “We never woulda sent Norm out there if you’d just said what you meant!”

I’m writing this column on May 1. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer just took executive action to extend her state’s state-of-emergency declaration through the end of the month. She is doing this because all scientific evidence suggests that if these orders are relaxed, the coronavirus death toll in Michigan will skyrocket and the previous month of quarantining will have been for nothing.

She is also doing this despite the fact that heavily armed protesters in camo and flak jackets stormed the state capitol to intimidate her into reopening the state. Members of the state legislature threatened to sue her. These people hate Whitmer, despise her, all because she is doing all she can to protect her constituents. And frankly, when you see photos of armed lunatics standing right outside her office door, rifles in hand and bandanas covering their faces, you realize that she’s doing it at her own great personal risk. 

The thing I love about the horror genre is that the best examples of it tell the truth. Take “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Back in 1960, the great Rod Serling never could have gotten away with writing an episode of television about anti-Communist hysteria and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts. However, by shifting the plot a few steps into the fantastic, he was able to do exactly that, and he got it on prime-time CBS. 

There is one common theme in horror that we see time and time again. We can see it in the three examples I listed above. We can see it on any given episode of “The Walking Dead.” We can see it in “The Shining,” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” or “Alien,” or any number of classics of the genre.

The theme is this: The monsters, whether they be aliens or ghosts or zombies, are a threat. But the biggest danger is always human nature. 

I’m worried about the coronavirus. But that is no longer the thing I’m most worried about.

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